Block 3 – Algorithmic Cultures Artefact: Do Androids Wish for Electric Worms? So what about all that then?

My Block 3 Artefact uses a set of pages made using Microsoft Sway. Hopefully you can start the experience by clicking the link below.

Click here to begin

This Artefact is broken up into several sections and laid out into a pathway. I did this because the term “Algorithm” is often used to describe a flow chart or “pathway”.  Usually these can branch, letting people know what to do next under certain circumstances (if it’s an algorithm for say sepsis). For this Artefact the algorithm is linear. Using Microsoft Sway means that each page opens up as a new tab on the reader’s browser, showing them the path that they’ve followed – the order of the tabs shows their journey. A similar method could be used to make an algorithmic storyline where multiple options are given on each page. This wouldn’t be an artificially intelligent algorithm, it would be one where a human makes the decisions and explores the content. Initially I did have a loser way for people to explore, with options on each page to go to any page, however it was confusing to follow and I kept losing my place when I was editing it (I suppose that’s why algorithms for people to follow tend to be written down rather than strewn around the internet).

The sections had a separate theme each and covered different aspects of the assignment. This was partly to emphasise the “play” side of the assignment, and also because it would make it more interesting for people to read. There was also a chance for me to mess about using references to films, music and TV shows, which is something that I quite like doing and I think feels very “internetty”, although that might just be because I’m constantly shown things like that on my social media because algorithms are putting me into a “you loop”.

Do Androids Wish for Electric Worms (page 1)

The title of this page, and the artefact overall, is a reference to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K Dick. This Cyberpunk novel is considered to be one of the classics of the genre and the story was renamed Blade Runner for cinema. I thought this was a fun title, but also appropriate as Android is one of the most popular operating systems for mobile devices, and Wish largely advertises through social media, which is likely to be used on a mobile device. The Worms referred to are a reference to the time when all of the adverts for Wish seemed to be trying to sell buckets of worms.

I chose not to chose Netflix, I chose something else

The film Trainspotting has a long rambling introduction narrated by the main character where he talks about the things that most people want or expect in life, and then declares that he chose a different path. I felt a bit like Renton. I’d picked something to play with that I didn’t really understand and then got in too deep to escape and turn this project around. Quite frankly, I’d rather have Renton’s hallucinations than be subjected to seeing some of the things available on Wish…

Why did I do this to myself? Because I expected that most people would pick a well known algorithm to experiment with. I didn’t want to follow a well trodden path, especially as those well known algorithms are probably really complex and connected to each other in subtle ways. Finding a way to influence them on purpose would probably meet resistance from a system that already knows me.

Isolation

My previous education has largely involved science, so I wanted to set up my Algorithmic Play with the same sort of controls that you would expect with any empirical scientific research. I wanted to control as many variables as possible so that the effects of my messing about would be easily visible and obviously linked to my activity. Unfortunately I sort of broke that rule right from the outset by attempting to control the algorithm in two different ways during the same experiment (External Cyberpunk plan and Internal Xmas plan). Although there was no obvious way that these experiments would influence each other, it would have been better to conduct each on a separate version of Wish subjected to the same rigorous set of initial conditions. Time, and number of devices was against me here, and I have to say that I was worried that one or both experiments would not work, leaving me with nothing to talk about. It was a wrench, but in the end I justified this sloppy methodology through considering the Play side of the assignment as being primary over collecting and analysing empirical data.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

This page describes the two experiments that I ran during this assignment. I knew that as a fall back the app would probably have an algorithm that presented you with things related to previous searches, but also wanted to see if it picked up on searches carried out beyond the app itself. The Xmas experiment was my fall back that should provide some evidence of algorithmic activity. I was hoping that the other experiment would also show clear results and could be benchmarked against the internal searches’ influence (“What has most effect, Google or Wish on searches in Wish?” would have been a good line to follow).

I chose a David Bowie theme for this page not for any reason related to the assignment, but because I like his music and there had been a lot of posts on social media about him (he died in January 2016, but things like Timehop kept showing posts related to him for a while after the anniversary – probably because a lot of people posted about him and his music for a few months after). I remember there was an interview Bowie gave about the changes the internet would bring back in 1999 and he seemed to predict quite a few things we would recognise

Result

This was just a quick page to present my findings. I wanted to keep the results and the analysis in separate places, possibly because that was what i used to have to do with scientific experiments – present the data and the conclusions that are drawn separate in case someone wanted to look at the results and draw their own conclusions before having their opinion swayed.

Weird Science

I left reading up on how the Wish algorithm is believed to work until after playing with it. My thought was that if I just retrod old ground then there was no reason to actually do the play part of the assignment. It was interesting to find out that my initial assumptions about Wish being aggressively involved in gathering data from other internet sources was probably false, and that Wish had gained its popularity through its algorithm being sort of haphazard in its advertising. This was a theme that I carried over to the next section – the idea that it can be easy to see “shadowy forces” manipulating people from behind the scenes, be they cabals plotting to control the world in a smoky room, or algorithms deployed to push products, political opinions or social attitudes. Conspiracy theories can be seductive (the recent rise in antivax and flat-earth groups has shown that access to information does little to prevent these ideas from gaining root). It seems that we can often be jumping at shadows, and assuming that an algorithm is way more advanced than it is…

X(ternal)  Files

…And then this section shows that sometimes there are sneaky algorithms that pull really odd connections together. Given that Pinterest is a Google company, it really wouldn’t have been that odd for it to suggest Cyberpunk Boards and Pins to me after I spent time searching that term. The weird thing was that it somehow linked this to the course hashtag. I didn’t mention in the Artefact something that occurred to me. Pinterest didn’t suggest any Boards to me before I started searching for Cyberpunk. Somehow it connected Cyberpunk to MScEDC, and then suggested Boards. Students on the course are likely to have searched for things related to cyberpunk during the Cyber Cultures block. I set up Pinterest part way through the Community Cultures block, so maybe timing played a part and this would have happened earlier if I’d always used Pinterest.

In the end it’s a really good demonstration of algorithms picking up patterns from a large data set and using them, in this case to suggest some pictures that I might enjoy seeing or find useful for a project. The timing gave it slightly sinister overtones, but under normal circumstances I would probably not have thought twice about being sent these suggestions. I might even have welcomed them. If Pinterest was something I used regularly I might not even have noticed that these suggestions had been prompted by the searches carried out for this assignment. We are surrounded by algorithms going about their business, often trying not to be noticed, just trying to help us enjoy using a particular website or suggest a film we might like. Perhaps there are other ones filtering the news we see, or directing our lives through pigeon holing the options that we might take in our education and training. Perhaps there is an ulterior motive to these algorithms, or perhaps they’re just a bit clumsy and want to show us the sort of things that they think we want to see. I like to think that the latter is more likely. Like the Wish app thinking that everyone needs a bucket of worms at a sweet 80% off to complete their ultimate shopping experience.

[MATT – ADD THE REFERENCES THAT GO IN HERE AND MAKE IT OBVIOUS WHERE THEY FIT INTO THIS RAMBLING STORY – IT PROBABLY NEEDS CUTTING DOWN QUITE A LOT AS WELL. ALSO PICTURES, IT LOOKS BORING AND NOBODY WILL READ IT ALL THE WAY THROUGH LOOKING LIKE THIS]

 

One Reply to “Block 3 – Algorithmic Cultures Artefact: Do Androids Wish for Electric Worms? So what about all that then?”

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